The Price of a Feel-Good Faith
Thomas E. Bergler in The Juvenilization of American Christianity:
Many larger American churches have remained vibrant by adapting to the preferences of younger generations. Many of those adaptations have enriched the church. In 1950, many people who went to church did so out of a sense of social obligation. While at church, they didn’t expect either to have fun or to be challenged to work for social justice. Just as many people go to church today, but now, by and large, they want to be there be there because their faith is providing them with strong feelings of connection to God, to others, and to a spiritual mission. As a result of juvenilization, they are more likely to have intense experiences of God, participate in a service or mission trip, and engage in Christian political activism. Evangelical youth ministries made religious conservatives less dour and legalistic. Progressive Protestant, Catholic, and African American youth leaders eventually won the battle to get Christians to see social and political concerns as legitimate elements of their faith.
Of course these changes came at some cost. White evangelicals invested heavily in young people and aggressively adapted to their preferences for an informal, entertaining, feel-good faith. They ended up with churches full of Christians who think that the purpose of God and the Christian faith is to help them feel better. Liberal Protestant youth leaders seriously misjudged the cultural tastes of young people and underestimated how much effort it would take to form countercultural social activities. They ended up with aging congregations and declining numbers. Roman Catholics were slow to juvenilize their churches and invested less in the spiritual formation of youth than they had before the crises of the sixties. They ended up with thousands of nominal Catholic adherents with relatively low levels of religious knowledge and commitment. African American churches managed to retain a high level of religious loyalty without much juvenilization, thanks to the close identification between racial and religious identities among African Americans. But there are signs that younger generations of African Americans may now be less automatically connecting with the church, particularly in urban areas outside the South.
Although juvenilization has renewed American Christianity, it has also undermined Christian, it has also undermined Christian maturity. First, the faith has become overly identified with emotional comfort. And it is only a short step from a personalized, emotionally comforting faith to a self-centered one. Second, far too many Christians are inarticulate, indifferent, or confused about their theological beliefs. They view theology as an optional extra to faith, and assume that religious beliefs are a matter of personal preference. Many would be uncomfortable with the idea of believing something just because the Bible, the church, or some other religious authority teaches it. And they are particularly resistant to church teachings that impose behavioral restrictions. If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individual mires in spiritual immaturity. (224-225)